Active Minds Staff – Active Minds Blog Changing the conversation about mental health Mon, 10 Jul 2017 17:03:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Introducing the winner of our 2017 T-shirt Design Contest! Mon, 10 Jul 2017 17:02:27 +0000 During Mental Health Month we put out the call…and you all delivered! We’re proud to unveil the winning design from the 2017 Active Minds T-shirt Design Contest, inspired by original artwork from 14-year-old mental health advocate, Mya, of Chicago, IL!

About her design:
“I was inspired by something Wentworth Miller said on the Internet; and since he is your Ambassador, I thought he might be willing to share his message of hope. Everyone—especially someone who thinks they can’t keep on living—needs to know that they can. They can endure. They can persist. They can survive.

We interview Mya to learn more about why she was so inspired by Wentworth’s quote and what it means to her. Read on to learn more!

Name: Mya
Age: 14
Location: Chicago, IL
School: Chicago Academy High School

How did you hear about Active Minds?

I heard about it from my Grams.

Why did you select this Wentworth Miller quote and what does it mean to you?

I admire Wentworth Miller. I started to admire the actor when my Mom and I watched him in The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, so I looked for some other of his work. I started to admire the person when my Grams told me about the work he’s been doing to help people, because one of Mr. Miller’s speeches made a friend who’s very important to her realize that his (the friend’s) behavior was suicidal and he needed and could ask for help, which he did. I too have had a few friends who suffered from deadly depression, and I’m behind anyone who’s there to help them. I have commented on Mr. Miller’s Facebook page a few times, and read the article he wrote there that the quote came from. I was surprised you hadn’t seen it. My Grams had dandelion art from her latest book cover, which she helped me modify so it would be unique for my contest entry. And since Mr. Miller is one of your Mental Health Ambassadors, I thought he might be willing to let you use his quote as a message of hope. Everyone—especially someone who thinks they can’t keep on living—needs to know that they can. They can ask for help. With that help, they can endure. They can persist. They can survive. They can be alive.

What’s something you wish more people understood about mental health?

That mental illness is real. Anyone can suffer from it, man or woman, young or old, of any race, from a homeless person to a billionaire. And anyway, isn’t mental illness really a type of physical illness, because our brain is part of our body? We’re not shamed when we have an allergy or catch the flu or break a bone (all of which I’ve done), so no one should be shamed over mental illness, either. But there is help if they just know to ask for it. And like with any illness they could catch, with help they have a chance to also “catch” good health, physical and mental.

What do you like to do for fun?

I really enjoy doing cosplay at anime conventions, designing my own costumes and make-up. Besides character make-up, I’ve also been learning glam make-up, like the “Blue Glam” look in my photo. I have always been interested in designing clothes, which is why I was excited about designing something for your contest. With the prize, I plan to give a little back to Active Minds as a contribution, and then use the rest for some anime wigs I want.

What’s something people would be surprised to discover about you?

Well, my friends will be surprised to discover I won this contest…because I sure was. But really, people might be surprised I can already handle a jet ski by myself and have a license, because my Dad taught me out on Lake Michigan.

The 2017 Limited Edition T-shirt is only on sale for three weeks! You can purchase yours HERE.

NSCS & Active Minds Mon, 10 Jul 2017 13:17:54 +0000 We’re so thrilled to announce our new partnership with the National Society of Collegiate Scholars! Full transcript of the video below.

Alison: Hello, Active Minds. I’m excited to be here with my friend, Steve Loflin, to announce our new partnership with the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

Steve: NSCS was an organization that I really wanted to start back in 1994 to make a difference for first and second year college students. We’ve come to realize that NSCS is really a great opportunity to provide leadership opportunities, scholarships, and even help people think about their future. But as an organization, one of the things that’s also become more important to us is to really look for ways to support our students and to really help them have the most productive college experience possible.

Alison: And I’m Alison Malmon, I’m the founder and Executive Director of Active Minds. Active Minds is a national nonprofit focused on empowering students to speak openly about mental health. I started Active Minds after I lost my brother Brian to suicide when he was a college student. And I quickly understood and learned that mental health issues are so widespread and impact so many of us, and yet, we talk so little about them. And students like my brother Brian need to know that they’re not alone, need to know that there’s help available, and they need to feel comfortable seeking the help.

Steve: Alison and I are excited to share with you all today that NSCS and Active Minds are joining forces in an unprecedented partnership to raise funds and awareness for mental health. Through this campaign, 80% of the funds raised will support Active Minds’ education and outreach on college campuses. The remaining 20% will fund an NSCS scholarship.

Alison: One of the things that we’re going to be able to do this year is a lot of online / offline programming around stress relief activities and Active Minds’ Stress Less Week, and Integrity Week, and programming that happens around Suicide Prevention Month. So, you can do that even if you don’t have an Active Minds chapter on your campus. If you do, I hope Active Minds and NSCS work together.

Steve: And I know all of those resources are really going to make a difference, and it really is going to help us take our mission in the direction of educating our members around these challenges and around where to find help on campus.

Alison: Our goal through this is to provide the training and education for NSCS members, to learn more for themselves and their friends, and to provide you the tools and resources to help us keep doing the work that we do.

Steve: We look forward to working closely with all our NSCS members across the country to empower students to speak openly about mental health and encourage help seeking. This is just one of the many ways NSCS embodies our pillars of community service and leadership. Join us on our journey to break the stigma.

Celebrity Family Feud: NFL Players Compete to Win for Active Minds! Fri, 07 Jul 2017 18:12:42 +0000 Be sure to watch “Celebrity Family Feud” on Sunday night and cheer for a team of legendary NFL players as they compete to win $25,000 for Active Minds!

This special primetime episode is set to air on SUNDAY, JULY 9 (8:00-9:00 p.m., ET/PT) on ABC.

Ten NFL players will compete on the iconic game show to win up to $25,000 for charity, as the “NFLPA All Stars” take on the “NFLPA Legends”. The All Stars will be playing for Professional Athletes Foundation (PAF), while the Legends will compete to benefit Active Minds.

Emmy Award winning host, stand up comedian, actor, author and deejay, Steve Harvey will host the program. NFL active and former players set to play on Sunday are:

NFLPA All Stars (Charity: PAF)
Le’Veon Bell – Pittsburgh Steelers running back
Patrick Peterson – Arizona Cardinals cornerback
Derrick Johnson – Kansas City Chiefs linebacker
Joe Thomas – Cleveland Browns offensive tackle
DeAndre Hopkins – Houston Texans wide receiver

NFLPA Legends (Charity: Active Minds)
Marshall Faulk – Former NFL running back selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011
Andre Reed – Former NFL wide receiver selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014
Anthony Munoz – Former NFL offensive lineman inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998
Derrick Brooks – Former NFL linebacker elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014
Rod Woodson – Former NFL cornerback and safety inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009

Follow the hashtag #CelebrityFamilyFeud during the show for updates and behind-the-scenes photos.


Active Minds is a proud mental health partner of the National Football League Players Association, the union for professional football players in the National Football League. Established in 1956, the NFLPA has a long history of assuring proper recognition and representation of players’ interests. 

Active Minds T-shirt Design Contest Update Tue, 13 Jun 2017 14:59:01 +0000 The Active Minds T-shirt Design contest is in full swing and we’ve received so many wonderful submissions, we just had to share a few of them with you. Every entry tells a different story of hope and resilience and we couldn’t be more proud of everyone who has taken the time to create something from scratch. The contest runs until June 21st, so there’s still plenty of time to submit a winning design! You can view the contest details at

About Chris Gethard’s HBO Special: Career Suicide Mon, 01 May 2017 11:00:01 +0000  

HBO is airing a new comedy special called Chris Gethard: Career Suicide on Saturday, May 6. Active Minds is proud to serve as a resource for his first HBO comedy special.

Many years ago Chris was a speaker at Active Minds’ national conference!

Chris is a (wry, funny, makes-you-laugh-just-looking-at-him) comedian who talks about his own personal struggles with anxiety, major depression, and suicidal ideation and attempts. He uses humor to make these topics more relatable and accessible to his audiences.

The show is great. It does have content that may be triggering to some people (and that does not entirely follow the guidelines that we at Active Minds use in our storytelling initiatives).

We believe the only way to combat stigma is by talking about our real experiences. As a person in long-term recovery, Chris is doing that in a deeply personal way, and we applaud his strength and vulnerability.

Chris and HBO also created a wonderful three-minute video called “A Story That’s Everywhere” where he talks with friends about how difficult it is to be open about their struggles with mental health. The video is authentic, funny, and heartfelt — we hope you’ll watch!

If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out for help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or by texting “BRAVE” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line.

If you are a friend to a person who is in treatment or recovery from a mental health condition, you can find more resources at

– The Active Minds Team

3 Action Steps For May Fri, 28 Apr 2017 17:53:18 +0000 Go ahead and make these small changes — you could see a big difference! These three action steps will benefit you AND those around you. This is a great time to try them out and celebrate yourself, spring, and May as Mental Health Month.

Self-Care: Get outside! Whether you take a walk or pet a friendly dog, getting some fresh air can help lift your mood.

Friend-Care: Take some time to text, call, or see a friend you haven’t connected with in awhile. Sometimes when we struggle, we have a tendency to isolate from others. Reconnecting has benefits for everyone.

World-Care: Tell someone why you care about mental health and encourage them to do the same. The more we all talk about mental health, the more compassion we have for ourselves and our fellow humans.

An Open Letter to the Creators of S-Town Fri, 21 Apr 2017 14:10:12 +0000 Dear Brian Reed, Julie Snyder, and the production team of S-Town,

First of all, thank you for yet another outstanding podcast series. I found S-Town to be an engaging, emotionally poignant story that challenges stereotypes and evokes critical thought.

At the moment that I was listening, I was traveling the state of California, training hundreds of students in how to recognize the warning signs of suicide and intervene to help save a life. I had no idea how relevant the story of John B. McLemore would be to our organizational mission at Active Minds, a national nonprofit that supports 12,000+ student activists throughout the nation who are changing the conversation about mental health on their campuses, with a specific emphasis on preventing suicide.

I thought a lot about how we may leverage this sudden propulsion of the issue of suicide into the national spotlight towards positive change. I believe that, with effective follow up, the teams at S-Town and This American Life are uniquely positioned to shine a light on the issue of suicide, a dangerously silenced and stigmatized issue.

In my view, S-Town did a phenomenal job of illustrating John B. as a multifaceted person, whose death came on as a result of many composite circumstances. Not only did he seem to have struggled with undiagnosed mental illness, he also lived as a socially progressive, atheist, closeted gay man in rural Alabama. On top of that, he seemed to have experienced more than his fair share of personal tragedy, and significant exposure to toxic chemicals.

S-Town also astutely explored the complex implications that John’s death had on the lives around him, which is an under-discussed repercussion of the epidemic of suicide. From Brian Reed’s own shock and confusion with the news, to the deep feelings of grief, anger, and turmoil experienced by Tyler Goodson, John’s out-of-town cousins, John’s mother and friends, and others. Suicide is complex, and it’s important that we steer away from over-simplifying its causes and those impacted.

Where S-Town missed the mark, in my opinion, is in the language used to describe and discuss John B.’s suicide. Not only were we hit with a graphic description of John’s death in Chapter 2 without warning, we also heard innumerable mentions of John having “committed suicide.” Language is both our most accessible tool for change, and our most powerful. It’s important that we change the way that we talk about suicide, shifting it away from the world of crime, stigma, and shame that is evoked with language like “committed suicide” and “killed himself.” Instead, we use the term “died by suicide” or “lost someone to suicide” which reframes the issue, building a foundation of support and acceptance of people’s very real struggles. is a great resource for safely addressing the issue in the media, in order to prevent triggers and suicide contagion or copycats, a very real phenomenon.

In the final moments of the series, Brian reads a few chosen lines from John’s suicide note, including one in which he expresses that his absence will somehow free up resources and room for others. Including these words was a dangerous affirmation of the notion that one’s own death will benefit those around them. To those who heard these words and felt any sense that the world would be better off without you, know that that is not the case. You are not alone.

Lastly, and most importantly, S-Town is faced with a unique opportunity to educate their listeners about the signs of suicide. Throughout the story, we learn that John B. frequently discussed his suicidal thoughts with those around him. He discussed it openly, and made plans accordingly, but few people acknowledged his words as true warning signs of suicidal intent. I bring this up, not in an effort to place blame on any one person involved, but rather to draw attention to the lack of awareness that exists around suicide, as a culture overall. Suicide is an issue that has not yet been fully embraced as a public health concern, and therefore remains widely stigmatized and under-discussed. As the Suicide Prevention Resource Center posits, we all have a role to play in protecting people from suicide. When more of us are able to recognize the signs, and respond, we may be able to get an individual the professional support that they need, and reduce the rate of suicide.

That said, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the unique challenges that a rural area like Bibb County, Alabama faces when it comes to access to local mental health support. For now, we encourage residents of rural areas to utilize national support resources like the Crisis Text Line, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

John B. McLemore was someone who was in tune with, and constantly immersed in, many of the macro ills of the world. Unfortunately, he and many of those who surrounded him were caught completely unaware of one issue that many of us routinely sweep under the rug: the tragedy of suicide. Suicide is a very preventable cause of death, but its prevention relies on widespread knowledge of its risk factors, warning signs, and crisis resources.

I can’t help but think about how John B. himself might have delved into this issue, having had a glimpse into his proclivity towards diligent research, and seeking diverse worldviews. I imagine that he would insist that those around him understood the consequences of their action (and inaction) on the matter. A way that we may mindfully honor John B. McLemore is to let others know that they’re not alone, that help is available, and that there are ways that we may all be working towards the betterment of our overall approach to acknowledging and preventing suicide.

I urge S-Town and This American Life to consider harnessing the opportunity they have to steer the conversation of John B. towards one of raising awareness of suicide, reducing stigma, and helping to avert further tragedy. Thousands of Active Minds students are doing so every day. We invite you to join us.

Thank you for your consideration,
Becky Fein
Active Minds

13 Ways to Continue the Conversation about 13 Reasons Why Tue, 18 Apr 2017 13:39:27 +0000 By Markie Pasternak

Markie Pasternak is a 2016 alumnus from Marquette University, where she served as Chapter President of her Active Minds chapter and President of the Active Minds National Student Advisory Committee. She is currently a graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington.

A note from Active Minds: Many people have found 13 Reasons Why triggering. In making your own decision to watch or not watch, we encourage you to review this resource from the Jed Foundation and SAVE. Markie’s perspective below is one of the many nuanced ways that mental health advocates and organizations have responded to 13 Reasons Why and we present her thoughts as a way to continue the conversation. Additional note that several spoilers are mentioned below.

In the spring of 2008, I was bullied. Even though these girls were in 8th grade, they had the ability to make me feel the size of an ant. They left me out, spread rumors behind my back and used me anytime they could. One of my other friends was also living with severe depression and attempted suicide.

This was a lot for a 14-year-old girl. So, on a rainy evening in April, at my local bookstore, I found a book that I thought might tell me why one of my best friends didn’t want to live anymore, why these girls at school didn’t see me as an equal. Most importantly, why when I was shouting out to the whole world for help, no one was answering. That book was 13 Reasons Why. Not only did this book help me to get some of these questions answered, but it created more questions— the questions I needed to be asking.

I am now a 23-year-old graduate student, but the new series based on the book did the same thing to me — it answered some of my questions, and is making me ask more. As advocates, it is our job to help facilitate these conversations. Recognizing that these are hard to do, here are 13 ways to continue the conversation about 13 Reasons Why.

  1. Say “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide.”

Hannah Baker did not “commit” suicide, she “died by suicide.” Why? Because suicide is not a crime, it is an unfortunate ending, often to a long battle with mental illness. When we use language like “committed,” we perpetuate a culture of blame on the victims, which makes people afraid to admit they are having thoughts about suicide. It also shames those who attempt suicide, adding to the stigma rather than providing support.

  1. Help others recognize their privilege.

I don’t speak for all women, but I know that I cannot be the only one who has been objectified by someone. This issue is dismissed in many of the reviews of the series. It isn’t just a women’s issue — anyone can experience sexual harassment or assault. If you have had the privilege of never having someone think that they had the right to treat you as less than human, take time to hear from those of us who have had these experiences. If you hear people dismiss issues that don’t affect them, call them out on it.

  1. Watch 13 Reasons Why with your parents.

If I were a parent and I saw my kid running around with cassette tapes for a week, noticed their bike was missing, and saw scars on their face, I would be concerned, too. But, setting aside that aside, the parents in the series were clueless about their children’s lives.

Parents need context for what is going on and to learn how to help. I know. “Do I want to watch some of those scenes with my parents?” I watched Gossip Girl with my mom in high school. Remember some of the things that went down in that? There were six seasons. You can do this.

  1. Bring social class into the conversation.

As we saw Justin admire Bryce’s family and get pushed around by his mom’s boyfriend, his character pulled in the theme of social class into the series.

Justin felt so inferior to Bryce that he was afraid to stop or report the rape he knew Bryce committed. Bryce supported Justin. That made Justin feel indebted to him.

Digging deeper, Justin feared power and didn’t trust authority. He didn’t have the social/cultural capital to make connections with school professionals like Marcus and Courtney had. This left him feeling alone. We need to be aware of social class differences and how they affect people’s experiences.

  1. Educate yourself and others on sexual assault.

We can probably agree that Bryce’s comments about the rape were disturbing. The fact that this 18-year-old boy could not define what rape is, is terrible and a statement about how we are educating young adults about sexual assault and harassment. If you cannot define sexual assault and know the difference between assault and harassment, put this article on pause and look these things up. Then work on educating those who may not understand.

  1. Hold your school accountable. Be a part of movements for change.

Liberty High was reactive — hanging posters about drunk driving after a student had been killed drunk driving and posters about suicide after a student had died by suicide. The students did not respond well. Schools need to have these conversations before a tragedy.

We play a role in seeking justice and raising awareness. Host a suicide awareness week, apply for the Send Silence Packing® tour or an Active Minds Speaker to come to your campus. The best thing you can do is help prevent tragedies by letting people know they are cared for and help is available.

  1. Think critically about pornography.

Clay realized the picture of Courtney and Hannah had affected him, too. He had used their picture for pleasure, but after listening to Courtney’s tape, he deletes the picture and all the pornographic images on his computer. My arms flew up in victory, not just for Clay but for all.

A man who was committing the crime of stalking took the photo at the expense of the dignity and respect of Hannah and Courtney. But let’s talk about how a lot of porn is actually produced. Some porn comes at the expense of women trafficked into sex slavery, some porn comes at the expense of women who leave their families to film porn because they feel they have few other options. Let’s start talking about where porn comes from and how, in many instances, it perpetuates rape culture and oppression.

  1. Don’t be afraid to question mental health professionals.

We cannot afford for mental health professionals to respond to students the way Mr. Porter, the school counselor, did. Beyond telling Hannah to ride out the next two months because her rapist will soon graduate, he disregarded Hannah’s thoughts of suicide.

There are A TON of skilled mental health professionals out there who work every day to ensure their clients’ wellness. However, for those not doing it well, we need to call them out. As advocates, we can help make sure our schools’ resources are quality. If we don’t call out a bad practice, then we run the risk of deterring a person who has gained the courage to try counseling from returning.

  1. Take a vow to stop using the words “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore.”

Again, language matters. When we use words like “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore” to describe women, we are perpetuating a culture in which we label, shame, and objectify women. In the show, it was never “Hannah Baker, the amazing poetry writer” or “Hannah Baker, the smart, witty girl who stands up for herself.” It was “Hannah Baker, best ass in the sophomore class.” When we call women or anyone these names, we take away their humanity. As we saw in the series, these ideas about a person can spread.

  1. Get certified in QPR or Mental Health First Aid.

Think about getting certified in QPR (Question Persuade Refer) or Mental Health First Aid to develop the skills to help someone in crisis. Ask you campus counseling center if they offer QPR or Mental Health First Aid certification. If your campus does not offer these programs, look up where you can get certified in your local community or reach out to Active Minds for more information.

  1. Recognize that Counseling Centers are many times a “white space.” Start talking about what inclusivity looks like.

Mr. Porter is a black, male counselor at Liberty High. That is pretty cool! Why? Because there are not many mental health professionals who identify as people of color. (Side note: if there aren’t enough people of a certain identity being represented in a specific space, it isn’t helpful to portray them in that space negatively.)

Most counseling centers are predominantly white spaces. Many students of color are not feeling that their experiences are validated. This is a huge problem. We need to include students of color and multicultural groups in our efforts. Listen to their perspectives. Advocate for inclusive hiring practices.

  1. Make connections with people different from you.

We are tempted to surround ourselves with people who are like us in interests and identities. The more we do that, the less we allow ourselves to learn new things about the world and about people.

Here’s a quick activity: think about aspects of who you are. What identities do you hold (i.e. race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, social class, religion)? Now, think about the five people you are closest to. How are they different from you? How are they the same? Think about what you’ve learned through those relationships, and recognize that there is so much more you could be learning by getting to know other people.

  1. Reflect on your thoughts about the series with others.

What ideas came as you watched the series? Anything you saw that you never thought about before?  Did anyone in the series make you consider a new perspective? Take time to think about it.

Then, talk to other people who have watched the series. Gather their thoughts, too. Start thinking about the issues presented in the series and start asking questions. Maybe even write a blog post like this one. This is the way we are going to create change on our campuses.  Everyone has their own unique ideas. Trust me when I say, the world wants to hear yours.

In Memory of Amy Bleuel, Founder of Project Semicolon Fri, 31 Mar 2017 13:37:38 +0000


The Active Minds community is so saddened to hear of Amy Bleuel’s death.

Four years ago, Amy, the founder of Project Semicolon, posted a note on social media encouraging anyone who is depressed, unhappy, has anxiety, or is suicidal to draw a semicolon on their wrist. She wrote, “A semicolon represents a sentence the author could’ve ended but chose not to.”

It became a poignant and powerful symbol of choosing to go on. Whether as a tattoo or drawn on, the semicolon is visible and it acknowledges and celebrates a struggle and a decision that is often hidden from view.

As Amy wrote, “Your story isn’t over.”

Amy’s vision was embraced by hundreds of thousands of college students. Many Active Minds chapters each year reach out to their peers on campus with events and activities based on Project Semicolon.

Last fall, for example, the Active Minds chapter at UCLA launched a semicolon photo campaign. “The people in this campaign were asked to speak about their history with depression and incorporate a semi-colon into words that meant a lot to them,” said Brooke Alexander, chapter co-president. “We took the photos on campus and they were featured on our Facebook page.”

The photo above was graciously provided by student Courtney Cruz. You can read below her words, explaining what the semicolon means to her as she supports a close friend dealing with depression and suicide ideation.

Thank you, Amy Bleuel. You gave the world a powerful symbol of hope and a way to make our struggles and successes visible and connected to each other. Gone too soon, you will continue to influence our work to bring the conversation about mental health out of the shadows for all to see.

Please take care. If you or a friend are struggling, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “BRAVE” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. Both are available 24/7.


During my second year at UCLA, I almost lost my dear friend to suicide.

“After going through a difficult situation, her depression manifested itself in suicide ideation, attempting to convince her that suicide was her only way out. She wrote a letter to me asking how does someone know if they have depression and describing her want to harm herself. Unfortunately, I did not see the letter before her attempt, but a few months after, she had the courage to tell me about the letter. In tears, she said that it was because of our friendship and the joy I’ve shown her, that she found the strength to not go through with suicide.

“That day, I vowed to her that she would not go through this alone. Using the lyrics to the song, “Sea of Lovers” she was for the first time able to explain what depression felt like to her. Within the song, the lyrics “bring me home” is in the chorus. Instantly, I told her I was going to get that line tattooed in the same area she presently has a scar from her attempt, to show her I am here for her always.

“As well versed and educated as I am in mental illness, nothing can prepare you to see someone you love not look like themselves anymore. Depression comes at 4am when the tears are falling and she needs a friend; when she feels nothing, everything, and happiness is a dead end. I have stayed up all night, good days and bad, been the strength when she had none, spent hours talking and piecing back the days she can no longer remember.

“Through an uphill battle and various obstacles, she is now managing her depression through therapy and talking to me. Seeing her battle against depression has ultimately redefined my definition of the word “strength.” She is the reason I am so passionate and have been honored to be a part of Active Minds, as Education Co-Director for 2 years.

“Her dedication to bettering herself and beating depression is the very reason I am dedicated to educating, serving, and protecting others who may feel they do not have a voice. Through education, I firmly believe we all have the ability to help someone. Depression is a word, but so is Love.

“A semicolon signifies the author’s choice to continue his or her story. To my friend: keep writing your story and I will be right beside you—when you believe you cannot write anymore, I will pick up the pen and help you. Remember, I will bring you home; This is for you 💚

— by Courtney Cruz

Photograph by Sana Mahajan

Know Your Rights: Leave of Absence Policies Mon, 27 Mar 2017 13:34:16 +0000 This post was written by Monica Porter, Esq., Equal Justice Works Fellowship Attorney, Disability Rights Advocates.

Setting the stage: 

What is a leave of absence? Generally, a leave of absence is a break in studies. A leave may be voluntary or involuntary, and taken for medical or other personal reasons.

A note on terminology: Your school may use a term other than “leave of absence.” If you are considering taking a break from your studies for a mental health reason, make sure you know what kind of a break you are taking and what, if any, services will be available to you while you are on leave. For example, at some schools, a student can keep access to their campus email address and health insurance while on a leave of absence, but can’t if they formally withdraw from the university.

Which brings us to…

Know Your Rights! Students with psychiatric disabilities (e.g., anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia) are protected from discrimination on the basis of disability. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”), and numerous state laws cover students with psychiatric disabilities just as they cover students with physical, learning, and intellectual/developmental disabilities. The ADA also covers all public and private colleges and universities, and Section 504 covers all those which receive Federal financial assistance (including accepting federal student loans).

What do these laws have to do with leaves of absence?

The ADA and Section 504 govern what is permissible in terms of college leave of absence policies, practices, and procedures.

Mandatory Minimum Time Off: Some colleges and universities have policies that require students who go on leave to be out for a minimum period of time, such as until the end of that quarter, semester, or year. This may be problematic.

As a general rule, colleges and universities are required to provide programs and services in the most integrated setting possible, including affording students with disabilities full and equal access to participating in and benefitting from them. By imposing a blanket mandatory time off rule, colleges may be in violation of laws prohibiting excluding students with disabilities.

Students with psychiatric disabilities are more likely to need to take a leave of absence, or multiple leaves, in order to focus on treatment to manage their symptoms. Therefore, policies requiring students to be out for a minimum period of time are more likely to disproportionately keep students with psychiatric disabilities from being able to resume their studies and graduate in as timely a manner as possible. Rather than blanket minimum-time-off rules, schools should conduct individualized assessments to determine a student’s readiness to return.

Readmission Requirements: Some colleges and universities impose requirements on students to demonstrate their readiness to return, such as engagement in therapy, work, or completion of coursework at another campus.

As a general rule, colleges and universities are not allowed to use criteria or otherwise administer their policies in a way that has the effect of “screening out” or otherwise excluding students with disabilities from fully and equally enjoying services, unless the criteria can be shown to be necessary. For example, a college or university may impose legitimate safety requirements necessary for the safe operation of its programs and services. However, any imposed safety requirements must be based on actual risk and not on mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about students with disabilities.

Along those same lines, schools are not required to allow students who pose a “direct threat”—or significant risk to the health or safety of others—to participate in their programs and services. However, in determining whether such a risk exists; the school must make an individualized assessment of the nature of the risk based on current objective medical knowledge and evidence, and determine whether a modification of policies or practices could eliminate the risk.

Reasonable Modifications: To the extent existing policies, practices, and procedures have the effect of excluding or burdening students with psychiatric disabilities more than other students, students with disabilities can request an exception, or “reasonable modification.”

As discussed above, colleges and universities are required to provide students with psychiatric disabilities full and equal access to participating in and benefitting from its programs and services.

While, in some contexts, avoiding discrimination means treating various communities equally; in the context of ensuring equality for people with disabilities, it often requires taking an “affirmative step” or, essentially, treating students with disabilities differently. An example of this is providing textbooks in Braille or electronic format for students with visual impairments. In this instance, failure to provide an exception to the general rule (of only providing textbooks in traditional print) would have the effect of excluding the student with a disability from fully and equally participating in the coursework.

Federal law requires schools to make reasonable modifications as necessary to avoid excluding or otherwise discriminating against students with disabilities, unless making the modification would result in a fundamental alteration or undue burden. However, this duty is only triggered by a student notifying the university that they have a disability and need an accommodation. Therefore, if you are taking a leave of absence for a mental health reason and would like a modification of existing policies, practices, or procedures, you will need to take the first steps to disclose your disability and request an accommodation.

If this seems complicated…

You’re right – it is. But you’re not alone. Lots of students all over the country are facing mental health challenges, and many of them have taken a leave of absence to focus on their health, before resuming their studies. As a college student you have a lot on your plate, and your health should be a priority, both for you and your campus. To the extent you may need them, there are a number of laws in place that are designed to help you.


Monica is an Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by Ebb Point Foundation, at Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a nationwide nonprofit legal center. For more information on Monica’s work on advocating for college students with psychiatric disabilities, and/or to share your story, please visit

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is for educational purposes only. It is not meant to provide specific legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. In addition to federal laws, state laws vary from state to state, and this post should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.